|Apr/May 2007 Reviews & Interviews|
The descriptions for Kate Thompson's The New Policeman gave only the barest hint of the sort of adventure that was contained within. It is a story about time, or rather lost time, and a young man who promises to find more time in the day for his harried mother. As I began reading it I was completely lost as to why the policeman in the village of Kinvara was so significant—even he did not seem to know why he was there or what difference he could make. But fifteen-year old J.J. Liddy caught my eye (and my heart) immediately. Blame my Irish upbringing and my long held love for the fiddle music of Natalie McMasters (from Cape Breton, true, but it is the music of Ireland), but I found this protagonist very appealing and was eager to see what lay in store for him.
J.J. is a first class fiddler from a family of musicians; theirs is a house where music comes alive for the community every month in a Ceili or house dance. Early on in the book it becomes clear that J.J. is torn between maintaining the tradition of the Ceilis or joining his friends at more modern dance clubs. Matters are not helped any when gossip about a long ago incident involving a family member makes him wonder if he wants to be part of the musical tradition or not.
All of this provides no small amount of plot tension (and family drama as well) but it is after J.J. mentions his desire to find more time to a neighbor who is actively involved in researching the region's history that the narrative really takes off. She knows that time has been slipping away from everyone—how it has been getting worse and worse with each passing year—and decides to send J.J. on a quest to solve the problem. As this is Ireland, the journey involves Tir na n'Og or the Land of the Eternal Young. It is there that J.J. faces some challenges, comes to some conclusions and solves more than one mystery. And through it all events continue to unfold back in Kinvara where the new policeman finds himself with more than one challenge as well.
It is all quite delightfully wrapped up and concluded by the final page and the reader is left not only with the most satisfying of grins on their face over J.J.'s adventures, but also is a fair amount enlightened by the very real political maneuverings against music like the 1935 Public Dance Hall Act and the legend of warrior Fionn Mac Cumhail (who readers should know did indeed have a dog named Bran). Thompson has done one of those things that the most talented of writers are so good at—she has weaved fact and fiction, myth and folklore in around each other so tightly and soundly that readers will find themselves sinking into J.J.'s story on a dozen different levels Hopefully when they are done they will willing reach for so other books (and music) so they can continue to enjoy some small part of the real world that inspired J.J.'s. This is the sort of book that leads to others and makes readers absolutely rabid for more from the author. It is first class reading and if you have the slightest bit of an interest in traditional music then it will purely take you away with sheer glee. (I know that sounds a bit old fashioned, but "gleeful" is how I felt from beginning to end with this one.)
In another novel of lost time, Rebecca Rupp's Journey to the Blue Moon finds young Alex facing some serious difficulties as along with his heirloom pocket watch, long held in his family, he has lost all track of time. This loss has resulted in the worst of grades at school as he can not seem to stay on top of anything—he can't remember anything—and his parents are not amused. With little hope of fixing the problem (he can't seem to figure out how the lack of a watch has resulted in his complete inability to get anything done in the first place) he falls into the oddest of meetings at the library with a strange woman named Lulu who tells him to watch for a blue moon and then "you've got three days more or less to do your hunting before the way goes shut." Those few days are all he has in the place where lost things are found—where all lost things are sent. It's a world of lost hopes, dreams and loves. There are broken vows, places people planned to visit but never did and houseplants left unwatered. In the midst of good intentions that are never fulfilled, Alex must find his missing watch. It doesn't help that he has only three days in a place that seems designed to keep you forever—in fact soon enough the very real prospect of not surviving his trip to the Blue Moon becomes something that Alex can not ignore.
Journey has a certain air of menace hanging over it—there is a villain here who is determined to do some truly nasty vicious things and she is truly horrific in a Mrs. Coulter sort of way. Evil can be so beautiful sometimes, can't it? Fortunately Alex is not alone on his search and along with his dog Zeke, (oh how you will worry about Zeke!) and a very smart and capable rat named Tetley (who lives on the Blue Moon), he also meets up with two others on their own quests: Edith Mumsley who lost her heart in 1896 and Simon Nash, a renaissance scholar who lost his way. The combination of ages and time periods makes for some interesting conversations and keeps the text from degenerating into typical "stalwart kid on dangerous quest" territory. Edith and Simon and are utterly unique and along with all the fun wordplay present in the novel combine to make Journey to the Blue Moon an original and enjoyable escapade (that just happens to take place far from Earth—how cool is that?!).
The Neddiad is by Daniel Pinkwater so I was sure I was going to get a freewheeling comic form of adventure with this story. What I did not expect was a post World War II story that manages to have a very strong 1940s aesthetic. I kept thinking of Carole Lombard screwball comedies as I read this or The Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Even though the action is of a young adult sort in The Neddiad there is still the rapid fire dialogue, casual acceptance of craziness and swinging sense of style those movies celebrated. It's simply a hip book—a hip kid's adventure that includes a turtle that can save the world, a shaman that isn't serious about his job and a ghost who is a vital member of the supporting cast. There are lots of unexpected twists and turns in this one and a delightful notion that even though the world might end tomorrow, you should still take in lunch at The Brown Derby first.
Neddie Wentworthstein is from Chicago and that is where he lives with his family until he persuades his father that living near The Brown Derby might be the coolest thing ever. (Actually Neddie just wants to go to lunch there; after his father points out that it is too far away for lunching, he spontaneously decides to move them all there. Neddie's father is like that but his quick decisions are part of what make life exciting.) As it is shortly after WWII, flying isn't an immediate choice for the Wentworthsteins, instead they decide to take the sleeper train and that is where Neddie's adventures begin. He meets the mysterious shaman, Melvin, in Albuquerque and is entrusted with a small stone turtle. In Flagstaff he accidentally gets left behind when the train leaves and meets Billy, the Phantom Bellboy and Seamus Finn, a living boy from LA who is traveling with his father, a movie star of the Errol Flynn variety. The four of them head out to the Grand Canyon (after getting in touch with Neddie's traveling parents of course) where the turtle is nearly stolen on a tourist flight over the canyon by Sandor Eucalyptus, a nefarious individual who escapes by parachute.
And yes, we are only in the first quarter of the book.
Neddie still has to meet Al and Iggy, two more very cool kids, and go to the biggest taxidermy store ever and see the circus. There's also a wooly mammoth, a group of fat men masquerading as policemen but really from outer space and a bully whose father has delusions of grandeur which have set him on a path to destroy all humanity.
Unless Neddie and the turtle can save the world, of course.
I can not relate the entire plot here because there is so much to it and it's just way too much fun to read anyway. Pinkwater has all of his humor going on in this one, but it all makes sense and the characters, both children and adult, all have wonderfully distinct personalities. This is a perfect book for boys and girls (Iggy is one of my new favorite characters—a cross between Margaret from "Dennis the Menace", Harry Potter's Hermione and Meg Murray), and is infused with equal parts comedy and action. I also really loved that not one of the adults (good or bad) was bland—especially the parents. Everyone of these kids had smart, caring, fun parents.
Can you imagine? I might faint from shock!
If you are the slightest bit on the fence about it, check out theneddiad.com, where Pinkwater has been posting a chapter a week since last August.
John Farden returns to his characters from The 7 Professors of the Far North with his latest book, The Flight of the Silver Turtle. It is a sequel but you can easily read this one as a standalone novel (that's what I did) with no worries or confusion. It's a great whiz bang adventure involving four quite likeable and smart kids, several older adults (most of them quirky professor types—see Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future for a similar kind of quirkiness) and a mystery that dates back to World War II. There is also a nefarious international crime syndicate that will stop at nothing (even harming children) to get what it wants (see SPECTRE in every single Bond movie) and a very cool airplane, an even cooler dirigible and an eighty-something year old female pilot who I flat out adored.
So yeah—not your basic Stratmeyer syndicate kid's book here.
The most surprising aspect of the plot is that it's not predictable, other than that you know the kids must be plucky and the bad guys evil, and there are plenty of opportunities for the boys and the girls to excel. It's absolutely exactly what I would want to be reading around the age of ten or so and I'm sure that my son will adore it in a few years (he's rather mechanically minded and for those kids in particular this is total brain candy). There's also a lovely Scottish/European sensibility to the whole book that will make it just exotic enough to be even that much more appealing to American readers. So lots of cool fun from beginning to end makes me heartily recommend The Flight of the Silver Turtle to all bored, whining, television overloaded young people out there. And I just want to tell Mr. Fardell how awesome I think it is that the adults are just as cool as the kids in his books—something I am constantly looking for. I would very much like to go to Edinburgh and spend my next summer with Sam, Zach, Ben and Marcia and all of their professor friends. It would so totally beat my current plans (anyone's current plans) and I would lean a lot about aviation and museums and cryptography and World War II and alternate power sources and why war sucks.
What more could any kid want from a summer than that kind of smart fun?
Of all the books I've read recently, The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis (Book 1 in a trilogy) really shocked me the most. I don't mean that in an appalling or outraged manner—it just actually made my jaw drop on more than one occasion. My unusual reaction to the book is a combination of story content and age appropriateness; I'm just not sure if kids eight and up are ready for books where not one, not two but three little old ladies get bumped off by the bad guy.
In Agatha Christie's world I'm expecting that sort of thing but in a story with a couple of little kids at the center, I just don't know what to do when it happens.
Plot-wise, Whitby is a combination of mystery and fantasy. Ben and Jennet are orphans and on their way to yet another foster home. This time around it is an elderly family friend who has offered to take them in but neither child holds hope for it lasting. The problem is that Ben sees dead people—all the time—and he gets kinda vocal about it when it happens. (What do you expect, he's eight.) Families aren't too keen on having the dead over for dinner (or knowing the dead are there) and so the kids get shuffled along. Miss Alice Boston promises to change all that and as it turns out she's cool with the dead thing—go figure. Of course she's also into séances and seeing mysterious creatures from the deep and using spells to protect her house from great big evil dog- things, so Ben's visitors aren't such a shock. Once they believe that "Aunt" Alice isn't out to take advantage of Ben, the kids figure all will be well but then some elderly friends start to rapidly die in odd and highly suspect ways. It all seems to be tied to the town's newest resident, a rather weird woman named Rowena Cooper. The mystery is all about who she is and what she wants—oh and there's also those sea creatures who are kind of human and need Ben to help them find a missing treasure they can give back to the lords of the deep in exchange for a wish to save themselves from extinction.
And don't forget the mysterious nun who walks the grounds of the town abbey late at night all dressed in white. She's a bit odd too.
As you can tell from my rather tongue-in-cheek description, The Whitby Witches has a lot of action to keep readers enthralled and it will certainly attract even those most reluctant to engage in a full length book. I was also quite pleased to see so many older characters in a children's book that were fully realized by the author—each one of Aunt Alice's friends are individuals and will stand out for the reader. They will like reading about these ladies, and not because they come from a standard "cookie baking, apron wearing, lavender smelling" grandmother mold. Some are likeable, some annoying, some funny but all are a kick to read and that is very cool.
When it comes to the dying part, the ladies don't get dispatched in graphic or bloody ways—a slip here, a fall there, a bit of a run-for-your-life moment and it's all over. So don't worry about blood and guts. You just have to make sure that the kids reading this book are okay with characters getting killed off. If they can deal with that, then you are good to go. It's really a great little mystery and Jarvis sets things up to continue along nicely in the rest of the series. I'm just warning you up front—don't care too much about the older ladies, because some of them won't be around for too long!
The New Policeman
by Kate Thompson
Greenwillow (2007) 448 pp.
Journey to the Blue Moon
Candlewick (2006) 272 pp.
by Daniel Pinkwater
Houghton Mifflin (2007) 320 pp.
The Flight of the Silver Turtle
by John Fardell
Putnam (2006) 233 pp.
The Whitby Witches: Book One in the Whitby Witches Trilogy
by Robin Jarvis
Chronicle Books (2006) 296 pp.